The commander of ISO Security Team 7 thinks he's discovered an internal security problem, and ends up learning a lot more than he bargained for. This is a satellite to (and occurs three weeks before) "Best Laid Plans" and is written from the POV of one of the original characters there. G-Force don't feature heavily, though team members do appear.

Contains some mild swearing.

Matti's tale

Subject: Re: promotions (or lack thereof)

>>>>Chief, I think you ought to know that I'm experiencing a lot of resistance in reassigning 
>>>>a couple of the juniors you put on my team. They're very good, but this is the third month
>>>>they've been left on the transfer list. What's going on?


>>>Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

>>>I've looked at the lists and can't see anything unusual. The two I think you're referring 
>>>to are a lot younger than the candidates who are getting picked up ahead of them. Please
>>>continue to assign candidates to your transfer list as usual.

>>I'm genuinely concerned about this one. I know you're actively scouting for candidates for
>>Force 2 - maybe you've already ruled these two out, but if the other field commanders are
>>resisting taking younger operatives where are the successful candidates going to get their
>>experience? I don't think you understand how good these kids are. They deserve permanent


>The decision on who to assign to the permanent teams is not yours. This matter is now closed.


I am seriously thinking of making a formal complaint about this. You asked me to put forward
for promotion anyone who deserved it, regardless of age or experience. I feel I've done my job.
I don't understand why the senior ISO commanders are doing this, and I have no idea why you
would appear to be supporting them. I'm concerned that there's something going on here which
should be investigated.

Matti Nykinnen , Commander, ISO Security Team 7

* * * * *

Matti Nykinnen clicked `send' on his final email, leaned back and considered life. He'd been unsure about this particular assignment from the start. Commander of an ISO security team had been what he'd been offered to join the organisation. He'd been flattered to be headhunted. Less flattered when he'd realised the team he would lead consisted of the newest ISO recruits, those straight out of the Academy as well as those transferring in from civilian and military organisations worldwide. They stayed with him just as long as it took for them to get a posting to one of the more senior teams. To make continuity even less possible, many of them were still committed to training programs of one form or another, and he never had the same team from one day to the next. Everyone knew his team worked like this, so prime assignments never came his way. He seemed to spend his whole time sorting out the aftereffects of missions run by G-Force or one of the senior ISO security teams.

Take last week, for example. G-Force had destroyed a mecha intent on spraying vast swathes of wheatfields with a substance which would have caused the crop to mutate into something deadly to insect life. Team 3, consisting of ISO's best pilots, had been assigned to herbicide crop-spraying - not normally a job requiring fighter pilots, but complete accuracy was essential. Teams 1 and 4 had investigated the wreckage of the mecha . Team 2 had debriefed every military unit under the flightpath . His Team 7 had spent four days interviewing every civilian across three states who'd called a hotline claiming to have seen something. It was astonishing how many different things had been seen, given that G-Force's initial report had been perfectly clear that the mecha they'd chased halfway across North America before shooting it down had exhibited neither shapeshifting not illusionary characteristics. And had absolutely not been shaped either like a flying saucer or the Starship Enterprise. He was still trying to make sense of the total mess of contradictions his agents had presented him with. He'd been without the two lieutenants under discussion on that "mission", too. Jarrald and Alouita wouldn't have presented him with the pile of rubbish he'd got from some of his junior officers - actually, Alouita might have, but at least he'd have annotated it with which witnesses he'd considered worthy of the title. This final report wasn't going to be any use to anyone apart from the psychology department.

The internal email symbol on the screen in front of him flashed, and without much regret he switched from reading the account of someone who was quite sure he'd seen a pitched battle between at least five city-sized craft over his farm.

* * * * *

Subject: new assignments

Hey, Matti , where are those star candidates you promised? From what you said I could use one
or both of them. Don't tell me someone else beat me to them? If I'm being thick, just point me
at the right names, ok?

< enc. List of promotion candidates from nykinnen1543>

* * * * *

Matti stared at the message. He'd thought he'd made it pretty clear, but still...

He clicked on the attachment containing his original message. Except it didn't. Eight profiles, not ten. He was quite, quite sure he hadn't made a mistake - he knew he'd put in those two first. They weren't there.

He thumbed the intercom to the common room where he'd seen a group of his junior lieutenants writing reports.

"Team 7, go."

" Nykinnen here. Is Lieutenant Shayler still there?"

"Yes, sir."

"I'll see him in my office at once, please. Out."

Rick Shayler had come to him with a reputation as a hacker of the first order, checking email headers should be nothing to him.

The tap at his door was decidedly uncertain, and as Shayler entered he looked extremely nervous. "You wanted me, Commander?"

"I'd like your opinion on this." He turned the screen so the other could see the full header list on the message.

Shayler scanned it briefly. "It's internal email. Do you think it's been spoofed? It hasn't been near an external relay - or says it hasn't. That's just text, it could have been faked up to say anything."

"How could you tell for real?"

"I'd need to get at the original message and trace exactly where it went after you sent it."

"Can you do that?"

Shayler flushed. "Technically, yes. Not without breaking about a dozen ISO rules."

"I'm authorizing it. Can you do it from here?"

Shayler nodded, and Nykinnen pushed the keyboard over to him and let him get on with it. Rick Shayler had got himself into a considerable amount of hot water on several occasions for getting into systems he shouldn't have been able to, and certain of the Academy staff had breathed a huge sigh of relief when he'd graduated. Others had expressed surprise that he'd been put on a security team at all. Nykinnen had been advised to keep a very close eye on him, and he had been doing just that. So far, the kid hadn't put a foot wrong, and had shown a good deal of potential.

"Commander? It's been rerouted and altered. But," and he flushed again, "I can't trace exactly where it's happened. Not from here. I can look into it if you want, but I'd need a lot more time and my own system."

"No, thank you, Lieutenant. That's all I wanted. Dismissed."

His fellow commanders hadn't got the same list he'd sent out. Anderson , on the other hand, clearly had. Someone highly skilled was intercepting internal emails, then, and altering them so different people saw different things. He couldn't imagine why they'd make these particular changes, but it still told of infiltration at the highest level.

* * * * *

Subject: Code Red protocol

Can we discuss this? I'm in my office for the next ten minutes.

* * * * *

Please, be there, he willed. His email wasn't secure any more, he had no reason to believe that the phones were any better, and Anderson 's office was inside the black security zone, which he didn't have clearance for. Assuming Anderson saw it straight away, even his non-standard mention of Code Red should produce instant effects. If it didn't, he was going to camp out in the busiest thoroughfare in the facility until someone he trusted showed up.

He almost immediately saw the flaw in his plan. If his email was intercepted, the culprit could just show up at his office saying he'd come from Anderson . Nykinnen opened his middle desk drawer and checked he knew exactly where the pistol was. He couldn't trust anyone at this point, anyone at all. At the knock on his door he pulled out the gun, keeping it out of sight under the desk, and called "Come in."

Anderson had come himself with two visibly armed security operatives, and wearing a decidedly grim expression. "Commander Nykinnen ? You are under arrest. Please come quietly."

Nykinnen considered his chances: slim to none. "I have a gun under the desk. I'm going to put it on the top."

"Do that. Then stand up and put your hands behind your head."

He obeyed, was thoroughly frisked, then one of the two produced a set of handcuffs and shortly he was being marched unceremoniously out of his own office and towards the black security area. This wasn't exactly the way he'd planned on getting entry, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that Anderson's investigations had a reputation for being painfully thorough. Once they'd checked everything, it would be clear he was innocent.

Anderson signed all four of them into the secure area, and abruptly turned to his two assistants. " Uncuff him."

"But chief...?"

"Now!" He turned to Nykinnen . "Thank you for agreeing to help with this exercise, commander. Perhaps you'd join me in my office to discuss the performance of these two?"

Nykinnen gaped at him in bewilderment, then nodded in agreement. It seemed the only thing to do. He held his hands out towards the man with the key, trying to look as if he knew what was happening, and then followed Anderson down a corridor he had no right to be in at all.

Anderson opened a side door and ushered Nykinnen inside, waving him to a seat. Only after the door was shut and he was seated behind his own desk did he start to talk.

"You called a code red, Commander. This had better be serious."

"I have reason to believe someone's intercepting and altering ISO internal email. The other commanders aren't getting the same lists I'm sending directly to them. Now stopping them from getting the best promotion candidates is a pretty roundabout way to sabotage us, but I'm sure you can think of more sinister uses it could be put to."

"I'm the one who's been altering the email. I want to know how you just got past two layers of code black computer security to determine that fact. I have your profile here, and you're no hacker."

Nykinnen put his hands together, thinking desperately. There simply was no way round the strict truth. "I got Shayler to look at it for me. He told me he'd have to break rules, and I authorised him to do it. I didn't know it was code black stuff, and I don't think he did, either."

Anderson looked at him for a long time, then slowly the corners of his mouth twitched upwards. "Damn, they told me you were bright. If I'd known how bright, I'd have picked someone else." He pressed a button on his desk. "Mark, Jason, would you come to my office please?"

He turned back to Nykinnen . "Who's this Shayler ? And what did you tell him?"

"Rick Shayler's one of my newest officers. He's just graduated from the Academy and he's got a reputation as a serious hacker. I asked him to take a look at the altered message Commander Durrell sent back to me. He told me it had been altered but he couldn't trace it without his own system. I said that wasn't necessary and dismissed him. I hope I made it sound like a test."

"He thought he could trace it further on his own system? Interesting. I'll have to take a look at this Shayler , maybe he can..."

He broke off at a knock on the door. "Come."

Lieutenants Alouita and Jarrald . Or, given the communication bracelets they were wearing, maybe Lieutenant wasn't the appropriate rank after all.

"You've tagged these two for Force Two? I hadn't heard you'd had any success in that area yet?"

Jarrald spluttered. "Hardly."

"Now there's an idea," Alouita said with a glint in his eye. "I could get away from you lot. What do you think, Mark - would I qualify for Force Two?"

"Enough, Jason. They're not Force Two, Commander. They're a little more senior than that. Meet the Condor and the Eagle," Anderson said with distinct pride in his voice.

"Bet you don't know which is which, though," Jason Alouita said with a broad grin.

Nykinnen considered it, while clamping down on the part of him which wanted to burst out laughing. He was in the black security area, and, more telling, so were they, thirty seconds after being called. Anderson wasn't known for his practical jokes. It had to be true.

He didn't know which was which. There were a few clues, though, in what he'd seen of their interaction with each other and himself. He turned to the more outspoken one, who had a tendency to discuss orders in training, but who obeyed them without hesitation when it mattered. "You're the Eagle, Jason."

"Only in my worst nightmares." He did look pleased, though.

Mark Jarrald looked pained. "Will someone please tell me what I do to deserve this? He's the Condor. I'm the Eagle. You must have seen him on that flight simulator?"

He had seen him, several times, and it had been another clue. Or so he'd thought. He'd figured him for the crack pilot fooling about - nobody could actually be that bad, surely? "I do apologise, Commander. I'm realising I've never seen you fly it at all."

Mark shook his head. "That's `Lieutenant' to you, Commander. We need a, well, civilian identity isn't quite right, but you know what I mean. Junior officer on Team 7 is ideal for our purposes. If that's OK with you."

Nykinnen stared at his hands. "I can't believe I didn't see a pattern. I mean, every time G-Force have been involved with a Team 7 assignment, you two haven't been there. Tell me I don't have the rest of your team too."

Mark shook his head. "Five of us all being absent at the same time might get a little obvious. You picked us up pretty quick, though - your predecessor never put me up for promotion."

"Me, on the other hand," Jason put in.

Mark looked witheringly at him. "He just couldn't cope with you any longer."

"Enough, you two," Anderson said with finality. "Now, Commander Nykinnen , I would like you to keep these two reprobates on your team on their current basis. Assuming you can put up with them. You may as well keep them off the transfer list. Anyone else you spot talent in, though, I want to know straight away. I guess I should have expected the man we brought in to spot Force Two potentials to come up with these two. Keep it up. Now, any questions?"

Nykinnen started to shake his head, then reconsidered. He might as well ask the question which came up in the Team 7 common room every time G-Force were mentioned. Especially given what he'd overheard the last time a group of his juniors had been discussing it, slightly louder than they'd intended. Thank goodness he hadn't followed his first instinct and called Alouita in for a lecture on the respect due ISO's finest.

"If you don't mind - how the hell do you get into those uniforms? I'm presuming the ideas you two were putting forward to the rest of Team 7 weren't it?"

Mark looked at Anderson . Jason simply stood up, said something Nykinnen didn't catch and brought his left arm down in a precise motion. There was a sight-defying flash, and as Nykinnen blinked to clear his vision, the Condor stood before him.

God, but whoever had designed that helmet had done a good job. He could barely tell it was Jason in there. Something about the colour and angles of the visor, the lack of hair almost falling into his eyes - but it was more than that. He looked older, harder. The eighteen-year-old he'd put up for promotion had to be reminded that he was an ISO officer, not an Academy trainee any more. This man made him want to salute.

"What do you think?" The voice was the same, though the Australian accent was gone. Alouita was enjoying this.

"Impressive. You know, you could have suggested that quite safely. Nobody would have believed you. I'm not even going to ask how it works."

"Pity. I'd love to hear Jason explaining it." Anderson didn't sound pleased - Nykinnen guessed he hadn't had that particular demonstration in mind. "Anything else?"

"Not that I can think of. I've learnt quite enough for one day."

"In that case, I'll see about getting you an official black level clearance, so that you're actually cleared to know what you've just been told. In the meantime, I believe you still owe me a report for last week?"

Nykinnen nodded. "I hope you enjoy reading about flying saucers and fleet engagements over Missouri , that's all. That's a standard sample of what most of my witnesses claim to have seen. It won't be any use."

Jason grinned. "Oh, I'm so sorry we missed that one."

Mark prodded him in the shoulder. "I haven't seen your report for our part yet, G-2. You don't get off that lightly. Come on, Commander, I'll show you out, save you arguing with the guard about how come you're in here without a pass."

Just before the door out of the high security area, Nykinnen turned to the young man who was both his junior officer and his ultimate field superior. "Tell me one thing - how many of my decisions would you have changed?"

Mark thought about it. "None. You don't do the same job I do. Team 7 largely isn't combat-ready, and if it was, we wouldn't be on it. Two minutes in combat and half your team would realise we were implanted. From there, who we are isn't much of a leap."

"And if we ever find ourselves in that situation?"

"You're asking whether I'd overrule you? Yes. If I needed to. But since it would blow my cover wide open, I hope I never have to. Jason and I trusted our lives to you today, Commander. Such civilian lives as we still have. I'm sure they're in good hands. Now I have a report to write, and so, I believe, do you. I'll see you next time I'm not needed elsewhere."

"Let's hope it's soon. And if you're not there next time Team 7 goes out, I'll be wishing you luck."

"You too."

The two shook hands, and Nykinnen went out feeling a lot more shaken than he liked to admit. Oh, he'd thought they were good enough to push for their permanent posting. But they were so young! He'd pictured G-Force in their late twenties and up. He'd just discovered that their commander wasn't nineteen yet.

He took a deep breath as the door to the secure area closed behind him. Time to act normal again. He had work to do.